what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The future of universities

For some time now I have been wanting to comment about two issues – first, whether funding and expectations of universities throughout the world has not reached an unrealistic level; and, second, the more coherent and urgent shape taken by recent discussions about the possible negotiation of a more independent status of my small country (Scotland). A report issued at the beginning of February by the Scottish Executive on the governance of Scottish Universities brings the two issues nicely together.

I have, of course, been highly critical of university social sciences on this blog – but it was the iconoclastic chapter about higher education in in Ha Joo Chang’s 23 Things they don’t tell you about capitalism which brought my thoughts to a head.
An article in the London Review of Books contained an excellent summary of the current misgivings about the direction taken in the past few decades by British Universities -
We are all deeply anxious about the future of British universities. Our list of concerns is a long one. It includes the discontinuance of free university education; the withdrawal of direct public funding for the teaching of the humanities and the social sciences; the subjection of universities to an intrusive regime of government regulation and inquisitorial audit; the crude attempt to measure and increase scholarly ‘output’; the requirement that all academic research have an ‘impact’ on the economy; the transformation of self-governing communities of scholars into mega-businesses, staffed by a highly-paid executive class, who oversee the professors, or middle managers, who in turn rule over an ill-paid and often temporary or part-time proletariat of junior lecturers and research assistants, coping with an ever worsening staff-student ratio; the notion that universities, rather than collaborating in their common task, should compete with one another, and with private providers, to sell their services in a market, where students are seen, not as partners in a joint enterprise of learning and understanding, but as ‘consumers’, seeking the cheapest deals that will enable them to emerge with the highest earning prospects; the indiscriminate application of the label ‘university’ to institutions whose primary task is to provide vocational training and whose staff do not carry out research; and the rejection of the idea that higher education might have a non-monetary value, or that science, scholarship and intellectual inquiry are important for reasons unconnected with economic growth.
What a contrast with the medieval idea that knowledge was a gift of God, which was not to be sold for money, but should be freely imparted. Or with the 19th-century German concept of the university devoted to the higher learning; or with the tradition in this country that some graduates, rather than rushing off to work in investment banks, might wish to put what they had learned to the service of society by teaching in secondary schools or working for charities or arts organisations or nature conservation or foreign aid agencies or innumerable other good but distinctly unremunerative causes.
Our litany of discontents makes me realise how fortunate I was to have entered academic life in the mid-1950s, and thus to have experienced several decades of what now looks like a golden age of academic freedom, It was a time when students were publicly funded and when the Treasury grant to universities was distributed by the University Grants Committee, largely made up of academics and working at arm’s length from the government; they understood what universities needed and they ruled with a light touch, distributing block grants and requiring only that the money be spent on buildings, teaching and research. It was a time when the ‘new’ universities of the 1960s were devising novel syllabuses, constructed with an eye to the intellectual excitement they generated. Of course, there were fewer universities in those days, and only a minority of young people had access to them. It is a matter for rejoicing that higher education in some form or other is nowadays potentially available to nearly half of the relevant age group. But because there are so many universities, real and so-called, there are fewer resources to go around and the use of those resources is more intensively policed. As a result, the environment in which today’s students and academics work has sharply deteriorated. When I think of the freedom I enjoyed as a young Oxford don, with no one telling me how to teach or what I should research or how I should adapt my activities to maximise the faculty’s performance in the RAE, and when I contrast it with the oppressive micro-management which has grown up in response to government requirements, I am not surprised that so many of today’s most able students have ceased to opt for an academic career in the way they once would have done.
But that is to look at things very much from the perspective of the academic. Ha-Joo Chang looks at it from the point of view of the student and of society as a whole. In 23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism, South Korea-born Chang offers a critique of education in his home nation. In a chapter titled "More education in itself is not going to make a country richer", he takes issue with "the common myth that education was the key to the East Asian miracle". Chang argues that "an unhealthy dynamic has been established for higher education in many high-income and upper-middle-income countries". Once enrolment reaches a certain rate, "people have to go to university in order to get a decent job" - even though most jobs do not require specialist training in higher education. The case of Switzerland shows that high national productivity can be achieved with low university enrolment, Chang suggests. However, rich nations such as the US and South Korea waste resources on higher education "in the essentially zero-sum game of sorting" - that is, establishing each individual's ranking in the hierarchy of employability. "When everyone accepted that educational performance is really the right measure of your innate capabilities, there is all the interest in the world to help your children to produce better educational achievements. Parents started hiring private tutors and sending them to expensive cramming schools."
In his book, Chang argues that "what really matters in the determination of national prosperity is not the educational levels of individuals but the nation's ability to organise individuals into enterprises with high productivity". Chang says the situation "does change over time but you need a lot of effort. You can't just decide tomorrow not to discriminate against people from lesser universities."
A diminishing of the attachment to higher education would also require great investment in sources of employment for people not cut out for university, he adds.

In the next post, I will introduce the Scottish context (where local students do not pay fees) - and give a flavour of the independent report commissioned by the Scottish government on the management of Scottish Universities. Interestingly the committee was Chaired by a German with irish citizenship who became Principal of a Scottish University a few years ago. He has an interesting blog.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A new language for political change?

Where is the modern equivalent of the classic "What did you do in the war, daddy?” – to make us oldies face up to our moral responsibility for the degraded world we have allowed to develop in the past 30 years?
The last post started out as a confession – but then got sidetracked into an annotated bibiography. So let’s get back on track.
I was, in many ways, typical of an important strand of the generation which was at university in the early 60s – and which helped release the economist and managerial gene from Pandora’s box. We knew better than our parents. Everything needed to change - organisations (particularly the public ones) were outdated and needed to be shaken up in the name of managerialism. The compacency (if not self-interest) of officials needed to be challenged – whether by community activists or by market forces. I was no believer in markets – regional development, after all, was my first great passion. And I had read my Galbraith and realised how oligopolistic and manipulative our bigger companies were (although even these were being threatened in the early 80s by young, upstart companies – at least in some sectors).
It was indeed a cultural revolution if not a Reformation– with rationality being the new religion and social scientists the new priests. Trade unions were seen even in the Labour Party to which it had given birth and succoured over decades as Luddites – as part of the collectivism from which we were to be saved.
What I was trying to say in the last post was that we have allowed the worship of choice and of market forces to go too far. Too many people, of course, have been deceived into thinking that corporate power is the market. And it has been all too easy for those marketing the market (in the media) to link anything collectivist with a dangerous or depasse socialism.
So a new language seems to be needed to reassert civilised values – and perhaps it’s the language of "The Commons" some references to which I stumbled upon recently. The most interesting is a manifesto of sorts from a German -
Over the last two hundred years, the explosion of knowledge, technology, and productivity has enabled an unprecedented increase of private wealth. This has improved our quality of life in numerous ways. At the same time, however, we have permitted the depletion of resources and the dwindling of societal wealth. This is brought to our attention by current, interrelated crises in finance, the economy, nutrition, energy, and in the fundamental ecological systems of life. These crises are sharpening our awareness of the existence and importance of the commons.

What exactly are the Commons? They are the fundamental building blocks and pre-condition of our life and social wealth. They include knowledge and water, seeds and software, cultural works and the atmosphere. Commons are not just “things,” however. They are living, dynamic systems of life. They form the social fabric of a free society.
Natural commons are necessary for our survival, while social commons ensure social cohesion, and cultural commons enable us to evolve as individuals. It is imperative that we focus our personal creativity, talents, and enthusiasm on protecting and increasing our social wealth and natural commons. This will require a change in some basic structures of politics, economics, and society.
More social prosperity instead of more gross domestic product! When the economic growth curve drops and the GDP sinks, it seems threatening to us. Yet appearances deceive. The GDP merely maps production figures and monetary flows without regard for their ecological or social value; such numbers do not measure the things we truly need to live, – they may simply count their destruction. Social prosperity cannot be measured through such means. A reduction in the GDP does not necessarily signal a reduction in the real wealth of a society. Recognizing this fact widens our perspective and opens doors for new types of solutions.
More detail can be found in report of a December 2010 Conference and its proceedings; and in the papers of this site

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Everything for sale?

Last September, I wrote with some indignation about a Romanian journal labelling an article I wrote for them "left-wing”. Despite my work as a Labour Party Councillor in the 1970s and 1980s (the last 5 years on a full-time basis), I was always opposed to its statist bias. Put this down to the influence of Karl Popper, Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. As a result, my main contribution to politics in the West of Scotland was to drive an agenda of support for community structures and inititatives. When the Labour party had its left-right split after its 1979 defeat, I was left feeling homeless – with neither option attracting me. And my suspicion of some attitudes in state professionalism and ambivalence about public sector trade unionism led me to view with some sympathy some of the Thatcher policies on contracting-out and privatisation of public services.

I feel, therefore, I can be fairly objective in assessing the results of the privatisation which has swept the globe in the past 30 years. With the exception of gas and electricity, I think the results have been disastrous. This post is written for open-minded readers who want some guidance on useful material on the issue - particularly from the British experience (which has, after all, been at it for 30 years now).
For how privatisation of water, social care etc have panned out I mentioned recently the Public Services International Research Unit of the University of Greenwich which has been giving great briefings on the consequences of privatisation globally for more than a decade.

Privatising the UK railways is perhaps the greatest disaster story – with subsidies to the private rail and track companies being almost three times (at constant prices) the subsidies which british Rail received – and the level of consumer comfort, convenience and satisfaction at an all-time low. Christan Wolmar is the great historian of UK rail privatisation

The English academic, Julian le Grand, was one Tony Blair’s advisers and promoter of the idea of releasing market forces into British social services such as health and education.
Perhaps the text which best captures the hopes and fears is The House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration 2005 report - Choice, Voice and Public Services and, particularly the 190 pages of evidence it received from both sides of the ideological fence.

The most prolific writer on (and critic of) the privatisation of the british health system is Allyson Pollock – whose most recent book on the subject is NHS Inc. She also blogs occasionally about the issues. The UK government is now attempting (for England only) the most dramatic set of changes ever seen - wcich would effectively dismantle the public Health Service - here is the view of an independent peer (and medic) who was once a Minister of Health.

The role which market mechanisms do now play in education (and might further in the future) can be followed in the second volume of the House of Commons publication mentioned above. An acadenmic treatment is Education Management Organisations and the Privatisation of Public Education: A Cross-National Comparison of the USA and Britain and an angrier statement from a practitioner in Education for sale.
One of the most formidable books I have on my Sirnea bookshelves is Robert Kuttner’s Everything for Sale – the virtues and limits of markets (1996) which received the following accolade from the late economist Robert Heilbroner "I have never seen the market system better described, more intelligently appreciated, or more trenchantly criticized than in EVERYTHING FOR SALE." A New York Times review gave a useful summary of the book -
Mr. Kuttner's target is the total faith in the market-pricing system held by economists of the Chicago school (and by members of two allied scholarly movements in the fields of political science and law -- public choice and law and economics): their idea that whatever is must be optimal if it is the result of the operation of a market. More broadly, Mr. Kuttner wants to dismantle the view that markets essentially work and government interventions essentially don't. By relentlessly piling on example after detailed example of market failure and government success, he gradually makes the idea that all efforts to modulate the market are doomed seem like a blind prejudice that has been holding the nation inexplicably in its grip. If you're ever challenged to name ''just one thing'' the United States Government has ever done right, you'll be fully prepared to answer after reading ''Everything for Sale.'' There are all sorts of necessary social and economic goods, Mr. Kuttner says, that markets can't be relied upon to provide. Free markets underinvest in pure research, so government needs to finance it, or to structure the economy so that private companies can afford to conduct it. Government made us prosperous by creating the higher education system, railroads, canals, commercial aviation and the Internet. Moreover, markets generate problems -- pollution, dangerous products, economic disasters like bank failures -- so they need to be regulated. Regulation does not retard growth: ''The zenith of the era of regulation -- the postwar boom -- was the most successful period of American capitalism.'' Finally, markets fail to provide all citizens with such essentials as health care, physical safety and basic economic security, so these have to come from government.
Demonstrating an impressive mastery of a vast range of material, Mr. Kuttner lays out the case for the market's insufficiency in field after field: employment, medicine, banking, securities, telecommunications, electric power. This material isn't exactly riveting, but it is presented clearly and convincingly enough to qualify as self-improving reading matter. Then he shows, over and over, how his primary villains, academic free-market ideologues, have pushed society in the direction of abandoning carefully constructed solutions to market failures -- solutions that were working quite well.
Mr. Kuttner is an unapologetic social democrat, a believer in America's moving in the direction of a Western European or Scandinavian-style mixed economy, with a bigger Government, higher taxes and stronger unions. One of the strengths of ''Everything for Sale'' is Mr. Kuttner's complete lack of the usual tendency in journalists and policy intellectuals to keep the discussion within the frame of the political possibilities of the moment. He wants to change the debate entirely. He insistently attributes our economic problems to political, not market, failure. For example, American blue-collar workers are underpaid, he says, because it isn't skills they lack but political power. Conversely, the solution to most of the market's deficiencies is not fine-tuning but ''a redistribution of economic and political power.'' As Mr. Kuttner explains (in italics), ''There is no escape from politics
Kuttner’s book deal, however, with the economic arguments. It does not really go into the politics. For that you have to read Colin Leys’s Market-Driven Politics (2001). It was Leys who helped me understand exactly what is meant by the dreadful word "commodification” and his book shows how it started to be applied in the UK in the 1980s to such fields as health and broadcasting. Leys is actually a development economist and most of his material on the internet is therefore on that topic – although an interesting preface to a new book of his called Total Capitalism is available here

The photograph is of Loch Lomond in Central Scotland - a National Park for public benefit and therefore free from development and market forces.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Consultancy....again

Eighteen months ago I highlighted a story about the English health service spending 300 million in the previous year on consultancy companies – equivalent to the pay of 10,000 nurses. This was just the tip of the iceberg – with spending on consultants having got out of control under New Labour. A 2006 book on the subject suggested that spending had gone up 10 times under them. Four reasons for this –
• New Labour’s initial suspicion of the senior civil servants who had served a radical right Conservative Government for 18 years
• a naivety about the implementation of complex IT projects (and lack of coordination on them)
• The curious combination New Labour had of managerialism and social engineering
• the jobs and connections many of the new Ministers had had with big consultancies when in opposition.

A story in today’s Guardian indicates that in New Labour’s final years, the spending increased by a factor 50 to one in one department. The Ministry of Defence apparently spent only 6 million pounds a few years ago on consultants but its bill came in at 297 million in 2010. Curiously, The Guardian tries to put the blame on the Coalition Government but, on my arithmetic, 2009.2010 was still on the New Labour watch. What will be interesting will be to see the figures for 2011 – when the present government started its programme of reducing defence manpower by 60,000.
The paper did report a few days back that government departments have spent 30 million pounds hiring temporary staff to cope with the shortage of staff they are experiencing after the redundancies of the past year.

Exactly a year ago I drew attention to the publications of the National Audit Office (NAO) on the subject. The NAO is supposed to be the nation’s financial watchdog but started to look at the issue of consultant use only in 2005. Since then it has issued various reports exposing the bad practice and issuing both recommendations, guidelines and the inevitable “toolkits”. Their last report (issued in October 2010 for the new government) gives a useful overview of issues - and one of the annexes to the significant 2007 report is a helpful set of guidelines on increasing the commitment of clients and consultants during the projects.
It’s sloppy journalism on the Guardian’s part not to give this sort of background – and follow it up eg by asking whether the NAO has been asking what use departments have been making of their guidelines.
For those interested in the consultancy business, a more analytical study of the different types of consultancy has been done by a Canadian think-tank.

On the subject of slack journalism, it is a blog in Paris which tells us here in Bucharest that several Romanians have been on a hunger strike in an attempt to get some transparency on the crimes committed during the communist era. Doru Maries is near death - having been on hunger strike for 90 days. The local media have apparently given no coverage to this.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Presidents...and presidents

Yesterday I watched Sarkozy’s opening speech of the French Presidential campaign which he delivered to 10,000 faithful at Marseilles. A stirring event – like 2 previous he delivered recently before he actually declared his official candidacy. So far I haven’t seen Hollande on TV5. Both candidates are up against a strong National Front challenge – so hardly surprising that Sarkozy’s speech was virulently nationalist -
Aimer la France, c'est refuser d'accepter les 35 heures (the working week which Sarkozy has tried to break) c'est refuser de promettre la retraite à 60 ans (...) c'est refuser d'augmenter les dépenses et d'augmenter les impôts en pleine crise de la dette (...) c'est refuser d'aborder l'immigration par la seule posture idéologique", a-t-il lancé.  « Quand on aime la France, on n'est pas du côté de ceux qui, pour défendre leurs intérêts, bloquent le pays et prennent les Français en otage (...) on a l'obsession de ne pas l'affaiblir (...) on dit la vérité aux Français sur ce que l'on veut faire, sinon on jette le discrédit sur la parole publique", a poursuivi le chef de l'Etat sous les applaudissements. (Liberation)
"Je me souviens qu'au début, j'ai fait de la politique parce que je voulais agir, je voulais résoudre des problèmes, je voulais aider les gens à surmonter leurs difficultés, a poursuivi le candidat de l'UMP. Mais en me tournant sur toutes ces années, j'ai compris que le combat essentiel, c'est celui que l'on mène pour le pays qui nous a vu naître. Il n' y a pas un seul combat qui soit supérieur à celui qui mène pour son pays." (Le Monde)
For a detailed assessment of the policy platforms, we have to go to a blog which actually gives us a useful insight into the socialist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon who is also running and attracting about 8% in the polls at the moment and whose manifesto is apparently a best-seller

The German Presidency is, as they say, "honorific” – and, with both of the last 2 incumbents having to resign, there are those who suggest the post is unecessary. This is to disregard the moral authority which incumbents such as Richard von Weizsacker and Johannes Rau brought to the country. Weizsacker was a Christian Democract and President 1984-1994 and West Berlin Mayor 1981-84. Rau was a Social Democrat; President 1999-2004 and Head of the huge RheinWestphalen Land (Region) from 1978-98.
I was spellbound listening to the speeches of the former as he made his famous gentle and highly civilised commentaries. A Foreign Affairs review expressed it well -
More than any of his predecessors in the presidential office, he has used that supraparty position to address fundamental issues, such as the ever-present unease about the German past, and he does so with clarity and admirable forthrightness. He has what few statesmen nowadays have: moral authority, and in his book-with its intelligent interlocutors-he turns from the past to the present and the future. His greatest worry concerns the vitality of liberal democracy in the enlarged Federal Republic, particularly in light of the power of German political parties in politics and public life generally-their power and the paucity of their imagination, the failure of their leadership. He is remarkably candid in his criticism of parties that only seek electoral gain and calls for a more active citizenry and regrets the immobility of Germany's political life, "the Utopia of the status quo." German commentators have seized on formulations that clearly hit the inadequacies of the present government, but these are incidental and inevitable. Weizsäcker's criticisms go far deeper. It took courage and, I suppose, the deepest concern to disturb the political complacency of his country and to do so with thoughts that in the German context and in some parts recall conservative criticisms of the Weimar period. But Weizsäcker's aim to strengthen, to vitalize liberal democracy is beyond question.
Johannes Rau was a son of a Lutheran priest and this showed in his approach. You can see a speech here which he delivered to the Israeli Knesset, the first German to address it.

I was lucky enough to meet both of these men informally and can therefore vouch personally for the humility they brought to their role. Weizsacker was holidying in Scotland and popped in quietly to pay his respects to the leader of the Regional Council. As the (elected) Secretary to the majority party, I had private access to the Leader’s office and stumbled in on their meeting. Rau I also stumbled across when in a Duisberg hotel on Council business. He was not then the President – but I recognised him when he came in with his wife and a couple of assistants, introduced myself ( as a fellow social democrat); gave him a gift book on my Region which I happened to be carrying and was rewarded with a chat.

I am glad to see that, with the nomination of Glauk, Germany seems now to be returning to its tradition of Presidents with moral authority. The German political system seems to me one of the best - with the leaders of strong Laender in the 2nd chamber acting as a responsible challenge to the Executive. Typical that, despite all the so-called discussion which has been going on for several decades about the reform of the British second chamber, this option has never been presented forcibly..... 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Some readings on the crisis

It may not have been evident from recent posts that one of my central concerns is the identification of an agenda for social change which is capable – by its appeal, relevance and clarity – of uniting a significant block of change agents in Europe at least. Two of my common moans are the insular nature of so much of the writing about this which one finds in the English language; and the failure of so many of the writers to build bridges to others writing on relevant subjects.
These faults were very evident in a Noreena Hertz pamphlet entitled Coop Capitalism just published by Cooperatives UK. Hertz is, apparently, one of these young celebrity Economists who have been taken up by the mass media and one of whose faults is to present ideas as if they were new. I’m not sure, for example, if her use of the term "gucci capialism” adds to our understanding of the crisis we face – and her references to examples of cooperatives are highly selective and superficial (Mondragon gets no mention). She allows this blurb about her to appear in the pamphlet -
many have described Professor Hertz as a visionary and she is one of the most influential economists on the international stage. Her work is considered to provide a much needed blueprint for rethinking economics and corporate strategy. For more than two decades Noreena Hertz’s economic predictions have been accurate and ahead of the curve. In her number one best-selling book “The Silent Takeover”, Hertz predicted that unregulated markets and massive financial institutions would have serious global consequences whilst her 2005 best-seller, “IOU: The Debt Threat”, predicted the 2008 financial crisis. Her books have been translated into 17 languages
Here is an example of how the media treat her – but here a more serious treatment of her ideas . I realise, of course, that such a comment could be taken as an example of how the left tear one another part – but change agents need to show more modesty and generosity in their referencing of relevant work.

Labour Left has published a 300 page Red Book which can be downloaded here. Labour Left’s ambition is 
to generate ethically socialist policies for inclusion in the next Labour General Election manifesto. We aim to intellectually reclaim what it means to be left and we wish to help Ed Miliband steer a course away from Neo-Liberalism. It is clear from the surge in new members, especially younger ones since the General Election in 2010, that there is an appetite for socialist policies that tame the excesses of capitalism and re-balance the UK economy in a way that is fairer to the have-nots
Unfortunately, like all collections, the book’s contributions are ad-hoc (if worthy) presentations of various ideas relating to health, education and environmental issues – with no wider analysis of policy contexts nor argument as to whether the particular ideas would be supported let alone successful.

At the other end of the analytical and geographical spectrum is a major publication from the European Trade Unions Institute which, in 300 pages, looks at the changes in the infrastructure of each of the main European economies in the last 20 years. It takes as its starting point Colin Crouch’s insight about the strange non-death of neo-liberalism and is entitled A Triumph of Failed Ideas – european models of capitalism
It made me realise how seldom I have referenced the valiant efforts of various European Trade Unions and their research bodies in their tracking developments of the past decade eg the fantastic public services international research unit of the University of Greenwich which has been giving great briefings on the consequences of privatisation for more than a decade; NHS policy briefings ; European Services Strategy Unit.
But I have just come across what, for me, is the best source of radical thinking and activities in Europe – the Transform network which issues a biannual journal.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Geopolitics of Coffee and tea

One of my favourite blogs is the It’s About time one – which sends me on a daily basis marvellous pictures of old paintings generally on a theme such as the ruffles which adorn the necks of aristocratic figures or the preparation of foods in medieval times – eg here and here
Some amazingly modern faces and styles are in evidence
I hadn’t realised that the famous Vienna coffee shops came from a some coffee beans being found in the fields outside Vienna in the aftermath of the Ottoman siege of Vienna in the 17th Century. Curious that the main thing which impacted me on my first visit to Istanbul some 25 years ago was their teas! In powder form and carried on trays around the bazzars and served as you looked at carpets.
My 3 years of ceremonially receiving and serving teas in small, beautiful bowls and teapots in Uzbekistan 1999-2002 almost killed the coffee habit in me. The coffees of Sofia dragged me back to the dangerous weed – but, at least, Sofia hedges its bets by having so many small shops which seel both coffee beans and Chinese teas!
I wanted to get an explanation for this apparent decline in Turkish tea-drinking but Google seemed strangely hooked on either the Tea Party or the Greg Mortensen saga (Three Cups of Tea). Wikipedia tells me that
tea became the widely consumed beverage of choice in Turkey only in the 20th century. It was initially encouraged as an alternative to coffee,which had become expensive and at times unavailable in the aftermath of the First World War. Upon the loss of southeastern territories after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, coffee became an expensive import. At the urging of the founder of the republic, Atatürk, Turks turned more to tea as it was easily sustainable by domestic sources
A Greek site tells me that tea there was expensive and, on independence from the Ottomans, was considered an upper-class habit. Another site told me of the Ottoman (red) tea spoken about by travellers and still apparently available in places such as Bursa - with 10 different natural ingredients - ginger, havlıcan (a plant in the ginger family), hibiscus, linden, cloves, lemon, orange, cinnamon, apple and thyme.

And I found this superb tea and carpets site which reminded me of the carpet-buying days in central asia and Turkey which preceded my current passion for painting.

Finally some lovely miniatures from the website with which I started

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Technocrats, securitats ...and cronycrats

An article in Scottish Review by someone apparently also living in Romania asks whether we now have 'Eurocracy' replacing democracy – pointing not only to the parachuting of bankers into the Greek and Italian Prime Minister jobs (in the greek case, the same guy who had overseen the falsification of accounts when the country entered the euro) but also to recent events in Romania. Romania has just completed a 2 year (apparently successful - at least in IMF terms!) spell of control by the IMF and, the article writes, –
two days after the IMF representative left Bucharest, the government of the deeply unpopular prime minister, Mr Emile Boc, resigned en masse and was swiftly replaced by a completely new government of what appear to be young technocrats. In Romania, the prime minister is appointed by the elected president. Finally, two days later, the governor of the Romanian Central Bank, the only man with any clue about fiscal and economic policy in the entire country, announced that responsibility for the nation's fiscal policy should no longer rest with the IMF but should be transferred to those nice German regulators at the EU, through the new fiscal treaty. Romania's president was one of the first non-Eurozone government heads to sign the treaty. Romania is confirmed as the next country, after Greece and Italy, to be governed by Merkozy's EU fiscal and political regime.
I have much sympathy with the author’s general point about the reduction of democracy but he is not quite right to argue that the new Romanian government is an example of the new "technocracy”. It is certainly true that the new Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu, is not an elected politician. He was, previously, head of Romania's foreign intelligence – which makes him a "securitat" rather than "technocrat"! His full list of new ministers was approved yesterday in the Parliament. M.R. Ungureanu's government team is formed of all-new members from the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), while coalition partners, the Hungarian Democrats (UDMR), and the UNPR retain their ministers who have served in Emil Boc's government. Two independents also keep their portfolios. Half, therefore, of the new government is unchanged – and only about 6 (on my count) are not politicians half of them incumbents. The full list of the new government is:

• Deputy PM - Marko Bela (UDMR, incumbent)
• Home Affairs and Administration Ministry - Gabriel Berca (PDL)
• Finance Ministry - Bogdan Dragoi (PDL)
• Economy Ministry - Lucian Bode (PDL)
• Foreign Affairs Ministry - Cristian Diaconescu (UNPR, incumbent)
• Transport Ministry -Alexandru Nazare (PDL)
• Environment Ministry - Laszlo Borbely (UDMR, incumbent)
• Tourism Ministry - Cristian Petrescu (PDL)
• Defense Ministry - Gabriel Oprea (UNPR, incumbent)
• Culture Ministry - Kelemen Hunor (UDMR, incumbent)
• Justice Ministry - Catalin Predoiu (independent, incumbent)
• Communications Ministry - Serban Mustea (PDL)
• Labor Ministry - Claudia Boghicevici (PDL)
• Education Ministry - Catalin Baba (PDL)
• Health Ministry - Ladislau Ritli (UDMR, incumbent)
• Agriculture Ministry - Stelian Fuia (PDL)
• European Affairs Ministry - Leonard Orban (independent, incumbent)

As many of the new members of the government are young - some of them in their early 30s - Mihai Razvan Ungureanu pointed out on Wednesday it was a young government formed of
new faces, exceptional professionals, people who I've worked with in various structures of the government. It is a government worthy of trust and ready to show not only a change in political generations but also a change of principle in activity
Frankly I don’t hold my breath. I have already commented that the younger generation of ambitious people here is no better than its elders. They owe their position to those elders (whether parents or protectors) and their education abroad has made them even more arrogant than their elders. It is, for me, significant, that the new Minister of Finance is the very young man I fingered in September 2010 for cronyism and disregard for such legalities as the need to make an open and honest declaration of financial interests. He was then State Secretary at the Ministry and is therefore apparently one of the non-elected technocrats – except that I doubt whether his route to that high-level civil service position permits that term to be used of him and his like. This is what my September 2010 blog said about him -
People like Dragoi enjoy such patronage (with no experience - he became a State Secretary at the age of 26 after an extended education!) and protection and seem so contemptuous of these forms that he doesn't even bother to update his form which understates his income by a factor of 40! 250 euros he says when it is actually 9,600!
His out-of-date form does, however, declare some of the additional revenues he earned as a committee member of various state funds.
I alighted on his declaration form by accident – just choosing his file at random from the list of officials’ forms. These assets, earnings and concealments reveal systemic immorality which, in Romania’s case, seems to be shaped and sustained by the role of its political parties which grabbed significant amounts of property in 1990 and which now determine the career path of young characters like Dragoi (nationally and internationally) and take in return a significant part of his earnings. For more on this issue see Tom Gallagher's 2010 article.

When people talk about pinning their hopes on the younger generation, I will always think of this face. It is when such behaviour is revealed that I feel some shame for having spent time working trying to reform such systems.
Perhaps, therefore, the term we should be using for Romania and similar countries with similar systems is not "technocracy" (which implies ability) but "cronycracy". By the way, an earlier article in Scottish Review by the same author was the best piece Ive read about the reasons for the protests here which led to the change in government.

The caricature is Daumier - one of history's best! This one is called Marionettes.

Some positive Greek responses

For some time now, I’ve been wanting to visit Thessalonika which is just down the road. A week or so ago, I watched a documentary about the city’s new mayor – a 69 year-old vintner who got involved in citizen politics some 7 years back through disgust with the way the city was being run. It was clear he (Boutaris) was a popular figure as he walked through its streets with the journalist. Der Spiegel has a short article about how he is going about the reform of the city’s administration – eg hiring an auditor in his first week in office and reducing the number of Directorates from 31 to 20. Already the city's budget has decreased by 30%
Thessaloniki was always seen as a stronghold of the conservatives and nationalists. The conservative New Democracy party controlled city hall for 24 years, holding the city hostage with its cronies. During the election campaign, the local archbishop refused to allow Boutaris to kiss the cross during mass, even imposing an excommunication of sorts on the candidate: "As long as I am in office, you will not see the inside of city hall." A television crew recorded the incident, and when the footage was aired even conservative citizens were outraged over the archbishop's audacity. "People wanted change. They realized that things couldn't go on that way," says Pengas. Under Boutaris's predecessor, €51.4 million ($68.4 million) had suddenly and inexplicably disappeared from the city budget. No one knew what had happened to the money. A former prefect is now under investigation in the case.
One of the mayor’s young aides reckons that the city (with 7,000 officials) has double the number it needs – thanks to cronyism. So clearly some of the shine will come off the mayor’s image as he begins to tackle that problem. Already his attempts (with French help) to introduce performance evaluation of staff has hit resisitance.
All of this confirms the appalling picture which emerged in the recent OECD report on Greek administration - which, again, seems to have been covered only by Der Spiegel. But the Archbishop's behaviour reminds me of Michael Lewis' article on the Greek crisis which appeared in October 2010 (in the American Vanity Fair of all places) which fingered the Orthodox Church as the richest and most corrupt body in Greece!

Most of the articles which are appearing about the impact of government measures are focussing on the impoverisation of its people and settlements. The New York Times Magazine ran a long piece recently.
But Le Monde of the 10th February ran an article called "Vivre la Decroissance" by two journalists Olivier Razemon and Alain Sailles to Athens telling the story of people who had set up a “bank of time” (trapeza chronou)..It works like this; people work as certain amount of hours and in exchange they get some services. Some people have set up a clothes exchange…Others are working solar systems in order to get free electricity…Some cultivate tomatoes, spinach, thyme, laurel, in a word all sorts of fruits and vegetables…which can be exchange for hours in the bank of time. The two journalists asked the question: “a big debate has ben launched; must we exchange products for services? If yes, how do you define the value of this product”. People in Britain have tried similar ‘alternative systems” like ‘letts’. It did not get very far…

An interesting Greek blog I've just come across gives a lot of detail going back some years about the situation there.
One of the journalists has recently published a book on a theme close to my heart – how concrete is destroying our countryside -
Année après année, la campagne française disparaît sous la ville. Malgré les proclamations indignées et les législations vertueuses, la terre fertile se raréfie, les espaces naturels se morcellent, la ville s’éparpille et se cloisonne, l’automobile s’impose comme unique lien social. Le phénomène, connu sous le nom d’étalement urbain, ne résulte pas seulement, comme on le croit souvent, de la crise du logement et du désir d’accession à la propriété individuelle. Centres commerciaux, entrepôts, parkings, la ville étalée se nourrit, en France comme ailleurs, d’une économie opulente et d’une société qui valorise le bonheur individuel, à court terme de préférence. Autrement dit, nous sommes tous responsables.
Les égoïsmes locaux, les tentations des élus et les tics des aménageurs se heurtent ça et là à des réflexes de survie. On pourrait densifier et vitaliser la ville existante. On pourrait prendre les décisions au bon niveau et en réfléchissant à l’avenir. On pourrait résister au tout-parking. On pourrait améliorer la qualité de vie sans gaspiller le territoire.
Les auteurs brossent un portrait vivant et sans concession de la bataille inégale qui se livre entre la soif de bitume et les rares garde-fous susceptibles de contrer le phénomène. Tout est perdu ? Voire. Et si les crises qui se profilent fournissaient un sursaut brutal mais inespéré ?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

collapse of empires

I am now literally marooned here in the Bucharest snow – such heavy snowfalls as have blocked the car exit although I have tried to clear the snow each day. As tends to happen in such situations, I have been losing myself in the past – first with Joseph Roth’s classic The Radeztky March written in 1930 and then with Robert Service’s Trotsky; a Life.

Roth’s book is the first of a trilogy and relates the stories of three generations of the Trotta family, professional Austro-Hungarian soldiers and career bureaucrats of Slovenian origin — from imperial zenith to First World War nadir. For saving him in battle, the Emperor awards Lt. Trotta the Order of Maria Theresa and ennobles him. Elevation to the nobility ultimately leads to the Trotta family’s ruination, paralleling the imperial collapse of Austria–Hungary (1867–1918).
Although he does not assume the airs of a social superior, everyone from the new baron’s old life perceives him as a changed person, as a nobleman. The perceptions and expectations of society eventually compel his reluctant integration in the aristocracy, a class with whom he is temperamentally uncomfortable. The disillusioned Baron Trotta opposes his son’s aspirations to a military career, insisting he prepare to become a government official, the second most respected career in the Austrian Empire; by custom, the German son was expected to obey. The son eventually becomes a district administrator in a Moravian town. As a father, the second Baron Trotta (still ignorant of why his war-hero father thwarted his military ambitions) sends his own son to become a cavalry officer; grandfather’s legend determines grandson’s life. The cavalry officer’s career of the third Baron Trotta comprises postings throughout the empire of Austria-Hungary and a dissipated life of wine, women, song, gambling, and dueling, off-duty pursuits characteristic of the military officer class in peace-time. In the progress of his career, Baron Trotta’s infantry unit suppresses a local uprising against the imperial government; awareness of the aftermath of his professional brutality begins his disillusionment with empire. I found this quotation from the last few pages of the book which covers the retreat from the borderland with Russia -
Most of these orders were to do with the evacuation of villages and town and the treatment of pro-Russian Ukrainians, clerics, and spies. Hasty court-martials in villages passed hasty sentences. Secret informers delivered unverifiable reports on peasants, Orthodox priests, teachers, photographers, officials. There was no time. The army had to retreat swiftly but also punish the traitors swiftly. And while ambulances, baggage columns, field artillery, dragoons, riflemen, and footsoldiers formed abrupt and helpless clusters on the sodden roads, while couriers galloped to and fro, while inhabitants of small towns fled westward in endless throngs, surrounded by white terror, laden with red-and-white featherbeds, grey sacks, brown furniture, and blue kerosene lamps, the shots of hasty executioners carrying out hasty sentences rang from the church squares of hamlets and villages, and the sombre rolls of drums accompanied the monotonous decisions of judges, and the wives of victims lay shrieking for mercy before the mud-caked boots of officers, and red and silver flames burst from huts and barns, stables and haystacks. The Austrian army’s war had begun with court-martials. For days on end genuine and supposed traitors hung from the trees on church squares to terrify the living.
Robert Service's Trotsky (2009) deals with the aftermath of the collapse of both the Austro Hungarian and Russian empires. It's a reasonable read - although the flurry of the revolutionary action did leave me a bit bewildered at time and I felt more space was needed (it's almost 600 pages). The picture painted of the man is not an attractive one - arrogance is the main feature stressed. The book has in fact attracted a fair amount of criticism -  both for factual errors and those of bias - on a professional historian site which one might normally expect to be positive; and also by more political critics here and here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Managing knowledge

A colleague sent me recently some diagrams about knowledge management – which prompted some musings about a term which has never been an inviting one for me. When so much institutional knowledge has been lost by peremptory sackings and downsizings in the past decade and more, how can anyone take seriously an interest/discipline for the retention and management of knowledge? Or was KM indeed brought into being precisely because such losses of personnel were anticipated? And how does KM relate to the previously fashionable "organisational learning" – and the writers associated with that eg Peter Senge let alone the less celebrated Reg Revans and his "action learning"?
What precisely have we gained through use of the latest term? I could relate to the previous terms – but find "knowledge management” pretentious (in its reification of knowledge, implication that organisations can capture it) and offensive (in its apparent emphasis on systems rather than people). Perhaps it’s just me and my anarchistic leanings – I have never really properly belonged to an organisation although, when a senior politicians, I did organise a variety of forums which brought people together who did not normally rub shoulders with one another. And, as my website and blog demonstrate, I am very committed to sharing knowledge and experiences. I belong to that generation which does not see it as a private resource. But Knowledge Management, as I understand the subject, springs from the recognition that the skills and knowledge of an organisation’s staff are, potentially, the distinctive advantage it has these days which can pull in the profit. If only, that is, it can identify the winning formula and ensure it is applied appropriately elsewhere in the organisation. But all of this implies and requires trust – and this is the one thing which the management of modern organisations has succeeded in destroying.
Of course, many non-profit bodies, not least in the development field such as The World Bank, see themselves as knowledge hubs and have published useful stuff about how to collect, access and use appropriate lessons from practice. One recent (and rather simplistic example) example was from the World Bank Institute and, some years ago, the ODI did a very useful literature review.

But I still feel that the field itself deserves the sort of ridicule which , by serendipidity, another blogger heaped on management fads -
Until five years ago, I'd never heard of brand wheels. I'd chosen the relative penury of bookselling so that I would never have to sit in boardrooms, having serious conversations about things that didn't matter. It was an unspoken agreement. Then HMV bought the company I worked for and suddenly books were called 'product', knowledge became 'learnings' and the staff were called 'resource' (always singular, I noticed). The agreement had been broken. It was a horrible time.
One day I was invited to a regional meeting and an ambitious young manager revealed a diagram of a thing called a 'brand wheel'. It consisted of various segments that represented different aspects of running a bookshop. Things so painfully obvious that it seemed unnecessary to write them down.
There were lots of words like knowledge (not 'learnings', on this occasion), authority, communication, enthusiasm and development. There was a reductive quality about the brand wheel that smacked of totalitarianism (I'm sure that Stalin would have had one if he'd known about them): this is who we are, this is what we think and this is what we must do.
And my prejudices were reinforced when I glanced at the many volumes of text of the incredible project which has just tried to diagnose the state of the "knowledge sector" in Indonesia - and also by this 2002 article - The Nonsenseof knowledge management.


And, if you’re wondering why I’ve not said anything about the change of Romanian government which we have been experiencing this week, it’s simply because other people are saying it much better than me. See Sara’s blogposts since 6 February

The painting is a Josef Iser (1881-1958) - probably at the Hippidrome of his home town Ploiesti and one of whose paintings was available, at a private gallery I visited yesterday, for 15,000 euros. It's the Ana gallery which has a great collection of paintings -most however piled inaccessibly against the walls - and managed by a dour woman who follows you round and names the authors of each work you touch regardless of the interest you show. Very depressing. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Money silences

A very important and revealing short piece on media freedom by Nick Cohen deserves a high profile -
The grand posture of writers in liberal democracies is that they are the moral equivalents of dissidents in repressive regimes. Loud-mouthed newspaper columnists claim to 'speak truth to power'. Novelists, artists, playwrights and comedians announce their willingness to transgress boundaries. Their publishers look for controversy like boozers look for brawls because they know that few marketing strategies beat the claim that a courageous iconoclast is challenging establishments and shattering taboos.
To maintain the illusion that they are part of some kind of radical underground, intellectuals must practise a deceit. They can never admit to their audience that fear of violent reprisals, ostracism or crippling financial penalties keeps them away from subjects that ought to concern them - and their fellow citizens.
Challenging writing about economic crises is rare. Diligent readers have every right to ask why so few financial writers warned them that the greatest crash since 1929 was on the way. As no less a personage than Her Majesty the Queen said to the academics at the London School of Economics, 'Did nobody notice?'
In Britain's case, any writer who had tried to research a book on the rapacious and authoritarian managers at the Royal Bank of Scotland or HBOS, for instance, or on the insanely reckless derivative swap and insurance markets in the London-based subsidiaries of Wall Street banks, would have run into the libel law. It is some barrier to overcome. The cost of a libel action in England and Wales is 140 times the European average. Contrary to common law and natural justice, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Even the few remaining wealthy newspapers, which have business models that have not yet been destroyed by the Internet, find it hard to afford a court case. For the publisher of a serious book, which would do well if it sold 50,000 copies, the idea of risking £1 million or more in a legal fight to defend it is close to unthinkable.

In 2006, the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet investigated the links between the Icelandic bank Kaupthing and tax havens. Kaupthing's managers did not like what they read, but failed to persuade the Danish press council that the paper had done anything wrong. The bank sued for libel in London instead. The newspaper pulled the articles and apologised because English lawyers ran up costs that were beyond its editor's worst nightmares - £1 million, and that was before a case had gone to court.
Kaupthing went for the paper in England not just because it wanted to kill the original story, but because it also wanted to deter others from spreading the idea that Iceland was not a safe place for investors. The English legal profession obliged. Newspapers' lawyers thought once, twice, one hundred times before authorising critical stories. A few months later Kaupthing collapsed - along with the other entrepreneurial, go-ahead Icelandic banks - and British depositors lost £3.5 billion. By allowing libel tourists to fly to London and use our repressive laws, the English legal profession had also stopped the British investors from learning of the danger in investing in the country's banks.

You no more hear writers and broadcasters admit that they are frightened of investigating investment banks than you hear them admit that they are frightened of challenging the founding myths of Islam. We cannot puncture our own myth that we are fearless seekers after truth, even though, if we honestly owned up to our limitations, we might force society to confront the fact that modern censorship does not conform to old models. It is a mistake to think of repression as repression by the state alone. In much of the world it still is, but in Britain, America and most of continental Europe the age of globalisation has done its work, and it is privatised rather than state forces that threaten freedom of speech.

Editors are no longer frightened of politicians but of Islamist violence, oligarchs and CEOs. They worry about libel and the ability of the wealthy to bend the ear of their proprietors or withdraw advertising. But they are not frightened about leaking the secrets or criticising the actions of elected governments. We need new ways of thinking about censorship. The first step is the most essential. Only when we have the courage to admit that we are afraid can we begin the task of extending our freedoms.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

EC's Cohesion Funds (part V) A Tale of Sound and Fury?

There’s something to be said for ignoring a policy field for several years and then trying to catch up with it in one go – it makes you focus on the essentials and certainly saves a lot of time! So it’s been in the last few days as I have downloaded and skimmed a lot of material on the (rather incestuous) debate which has been taking place over the past 2-3 years about the EC Structural (or Cohesion) Funds whose programme for 2014-2020 will have to be decided this year.

As the Commission’s views eventually surfaced at the end of 2011, it seems, frankly, to be have been a case of "sound and fury…signifying…nothing”! When I read the leaflet which set out the Commission’s proposals of 6 October, they don’t seem to contain anything significantly new – more ex-ante evaluation; better monitoring; and a new category of "transitional regions”. And the much-discussed idea of more local flexibility seems to have died without trace. So perhaps the journalists I accused of neglect in an earlier post have been correct to leave the subject well alone. As we say, it "doesn't appear to amount to a row of beans!"
In 2010, a slide presentation caught the terms of the then current debate rather well. For those masochists who want to follow the details of the debate, an archived site allows you to access both the key papers and also the various components of the 2009 Barca report including its ten 10 commissioned studies and a summary of some hearings.

Despite a caustic comment recently about language, the papers from Strathclyde University’s European Policies Centre are the only clear updates you get on Structural Funds. The latest is appropriately subtitled "let the negotiations begin".
In November 2011 one of the leading members of the Centre produced a paper EC Cohesion Policy and Europe 2020 – between place-based and people-based prosperity which subjected the debate on the EC’s Cohesion Policy to the dreadful Discourse Analysis -
Ideas are increasingly recognized as playing an important causal role in policy development. Instead of seeing change as the product of strategic contestation among actors with clear and fixed interests, an ideational perspective emphasises the struggle for power among actors motivated by different ideas.
 The last half of the paper, however is actually interesting - it traces the history of cohesion policy and then explores the various policy positions about the nature and shape of the future programme (which now accounts for 40% of the EU budget). The paper suggests 2 central dimensions – focus and management – to construct a matrix. The focus can be geographical place or sector (eg transport, energy, IT, environment); the management central (EC led) or local (national) – which gives four options -
Territorial contractualism (top-down); supported by two key players – the European Parliament and the European Commission’s Regional Policy Department (DG Regio)
Territorial experimentalism (with more local flexibility); supported by the Committee of Regions
Sectoral functionalism (top-down); supported by the other relevant Commission Directorates
Sectoral coordination

Ideas in these arguments become tools which rationalise the interests of the various actors. As I thought about the process, I was suddenly reminded of one of the seminal texts in the literature of political science – Graham Allison’s The Essence of Decision (1971) - which applied three different explanatory models to the Cuban Crisis – the rational (what is in the interests of the government); the organisational process (organisations do what they are used to doing); and bureaucratic (court) politics ("various overlapping bargaining games among players arranged hierarchically in the national government”). This is a paper of his from 1968 which presents the basic proposition; and this a critique from 1992.

Friday, February 3, 2012

we don't live in a post industrial age

I’m reading Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things they don’t tell you about Capitalism at the moment – and am very impressed. An economist who writes simply and elegantly (shades of JK Galbraith) and makes you think (as distinct from fall asleep). Section nine – entitled We do not live in a post-industrial age - took me back to arguments with my father in the 1970s about the role of industry. The indifference (at least) of British social scientists – and the policy elites who took their arguments – to the decline of manfacturing industry is a phenomenon to which we have not yet done historical justice! Here’s some of what Chang has to say -
Part of the de-industrialisation myth is due to optical illusions – reflecting, for example, changes in statistical classification rather than changes in real activities. One such illusion is due to the outsourcing of some activities that used to be provided inhouse by manufacturing firms and thus captured as manufacturing output (e.g., catering, cleaning, technical supports). When they are outsourced, recorded service outputs increase without a real increase in service activities. Even though there is no reliable estimate of its magnitude, experts agree that outsourcing has been a significant source of de-industrialisation in the US and Britain, especially during the 1980s.
In addition to the outsourcing effect, the extent of manufacturing contraction is exaggerated by what is called the reclassification effect. A UK government report estimates that up to 10% of the fall in manufacturing employment between 1998 and 2006 in the UK may be accounted for by some manufacturing firms, seeing their service activities becoming predominant, applying to the government statistical agency to be re-classified as service firms, even when they are still engaged in some manufacturing activities.
A third factor in the myth is the relative price-effect. With the (inflation-adjusted) amount of money you paid to get a PC ten years ago, today you can probably buy three, if not four, computers of equal or even greater computing power (and certainly smaller sizes). As a result, you probably have two, rather than just one, computers. But, even with two computers, the portion of your income that you spend on computers has gone down quite a lot (for the sake of argument, I am assuming that your income, after adjusting for inflation, is the same). In contrast, you are probably getting the same number of haircuts as you did ten years ago (if you haven’t gone thin on the top, that is). The price of haircuts has probably gone up somewhat, so the proportion of your income that goes to your haircut is greater than it was 10 years ago.
The result is that it looks as if you are spending a greater (smaller) portion of your income on haircuts (computers) than before, but the reality is that you are actually consuming more computers than before, while your consumption of haircuts is the same.
 A very thorough review in Dissident Voice starts with an excellent summary of some of the main points Chang makes - all starting with a statement of "what they tell us", followed by  a demolition of the conventional wisdom -
* Government must never interfere with “the free market.” (Chang says WRONG: modern economies would collapse without numerous forms of government intervention. Smart capitalists know very well that “there is no such thing as a free market.”)
* Companies should always be run in the interests of their owners/shareholders (WRONG: shareholders often damage the long-term prospects of companies by over-emphasizing short-term profit.)
* Economic health requires the assumption that people think only about themselves (WRONG: the most successful firms and national economies understand how to harness peoples’ cooperative and altruistic sentiments and instincts.)
* Poor counties need to adopt “free market” (neoliberal) policies (especially “free trade”) to achieve sustained growth. (WRONG: developing countries experienced superior growth in the period of state-led Third World development [1945-1970] than in the period of neoliberal, market-oriented “reform.” This is richly consistent with how the world’s richest nations – the ones who preach neoliberalism to the rest of the world – rose to ascendancy in the past: “through a combination of protectionism, subsidies, and other [state- and not market-led) policies that today they advise developing countries not to adopt” [63].)
* The relatively free market, capitalist-friendly neoliberal United States enjoys the highest standard of living in the world. (WRONG: thanks to the nation’s remarkably high levels of inequality [itself a symptom of its extreme neoliberalism], millions of Americans do not enjoy the United States’ remarkable average living standard. That extreme inequality and the poverty it generates are the main factors behind comparatively poor health indicators and crime levels in the U.S. Higher immigration and poor working conditions explain are the main reasons that many services are purchased more cheaply in the U.S. At the same time, Americans work considerably longer hours than Europeans so that “per hours worked, their command over goods and service is smaller than that of several European countries [103].”)
* Making rich people richer makes the rest richer too since it is rich people who seek out marketing opportunities and then invest to create jobs (WRONG: pro-rich policies have failed to produce economic expansion in the last three decades. “Trickle down economics” doesn’t work. It can have no positive outcomes in the absence of polices that (contrary to neoliberal doctrine) that make the rich deliver higher investment and share the benefits with – and put spending power in the hands of – non-affluent people, who spend a higher portion of their income than do the rich).
* Government must give maximum freedom to big corporations for the good of the countries in which those companies reside (WRONG: it is often better for the national economy and even the individual company for government to impose reasonable restraints and obligations on those companies).
* Capital has no nationality in the age of multinational corporations and globalization and therefore it nationalistic government policies towards transnational capital is “at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive” (WRONG: “most transnational companies in fact remain national companies with international operations, rather than genuinely nation-less companies” and it is “very naïve to base economic policies on the myth that capital does not have any national roots anymore”)
* Governments lack the ability (including the required expertise and information) to make intelligent business choices and thereby “pick winners” through state-led industrial policy. (WRONG: governments can and do regularly choose winning firms and industries over and against “market signals” and in ways that can and do “improve national economic performance”).
* The only equality that is economically functional or advisable is equality of opportunity. Policies that seek to generate more equality of outcome are inherently inefficient and unjust (WRONG: the equality of opportunity that is required to broaden the spread of economic benefits does not really exist without at least some measures to enhance equality of outcome. Free public education is woefully insufficient to broaden opportunity when it is not accompanied by policies that put a basic decent minimum standard of material living for households on the bottom end of the scale).
* The big government welfare state damages economies by depriving the rich of the incentive to create wealth and making the poor lazy. It creates resistance to the change that modern economies require. (WRONG: by providing second and third chances and a safety net to the non-affluent, the welfare state encourages workers to be more open to change when comes to choosing their first jobs and letting go of their existing jobs).
* Efficient financial markets – capable of the rapid allocation and re-allocation of capital across time and place – are the source of economic health and expansion Recent financial disturbances aside, smart policy makers should do nothing to slow down and complicate the operation of the world’s high speed financial markets (WRONG: U.S. and western financial markets are actually too efficient. The currently over-developed financial sector is now so proficient and organized in the pursuit of short-term profits that it is a leading source of economic instability and is incapable of giving emergent enterprises and industries and complex national economies the patient nurturance they require to develop over time.)
The painting is the only abstract which graces my collection - by Stefan Pelmus, more of whose paintings can be seen here.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Classic Romanian painters

Still blocked in Bucharest with the snow and biting temperatures (minus 27 in Brasov last night) and, being the first Wednesday of the month, what better to do than take advantage of the free entry to galleries which this date always offers. So off to the great National Museum of Romanian Art – and straight up to the third floor (so as not to be tired out by the time the modern section is reached!) The large collection there starts with a generous number of the bright Theodor Aman (1831-1891) society paintings – ditto Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907) and Ion Andreescu (1850-1882) - and gives a new perspective on every visit.

I had previously praised a website which purports to show the Romanian cultural patrimony but now notice that none of the great paintings on display seem to be in the virtual collection.

Stefan Popescu (1872-1948), for example, is a great favourite of mine – particularly those which reflect his time in northern Africa. Sadly, however, I can find none of these on the site (which is, in any event organised in a very administrative, non-user friendly way) - or online generally. If you scroll down on this blogpost (on my links) about the Brasov Gallery you will get a certain sense of some of the classic Romanian painters.

The National Gallery always has interesting publications and, this time, I bought (for 7 euros) a very well-produced 122 page book on their modern school. At the Humanitas bookshop nearby, I bought, for 9 euros, the 150 page book on Theodor Aman – and also a great-looking source book on Balkan Cinema.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Romania's first jailing of a senior politician

One of Romania’s ex-Prime Ministers was sentenced yesterday to 2 years in jail – although, compared with the wider suspicions against him and all those who occupy such positions here, the issue on which he was sentenced smacks a bit of the Al Capone syndrome (done for taxation issues; this is Capone's mugshot) -
Romanian High Court of Justice magistrates gave former prime minister Adrian Nastase on Monday a 2-year sentence and stripped him of certain rights in a corruption case known locally as the "Quality Trophy" file. In this case, Nastase, who served as head of the Romanian government between 2000 and 2004 (see pic below), was charged of supporting his electoral campaign through funds collected in a "Quality Trophy" event organized by the a public institution. The sentence can be appealed. UPDATE Adrian Nastase said on Monday he would appeal the verdict and that he was sure "things will be corrected on appeal". He called the verdict a "political decision, a dirty decision" and referred to "rumors" that head judge Ionut Matei "had meetings with representatives of the National Anti-corruption Department", the body which launched the corruption investigation against him.
In fact, Nastase cut a fairly impressive figure when he was PM - open and intelligent - probably the least corrupt of the lot (apart from Trade Unionist lawyer and National Peasant Party Ciorba). He did attract some ridicule for his attribution some years back of his unexplained wealth to the inheritance from an old aunt. He is in fact the first high-level politician to go to jail - Severin, the MEP, still shamelessly draws his salary and expenses - despite his exposure a year ago for corrput practices and banishment from the socialist bloc.
Those who wish to know about current events in Romania are best to follow the Sarah in Romania blog which is on my links. And she had a good post recently on the protests here which continue even in the biting cold here (minus 22 last night) -
Romania's president incumbent, Traian Basescu, spoke on national television last week for the first time since protests began almost three weeks ago, in defense of his government's tough austerity measures. The measures suffered in Romania have been immensely strict. "Brutal and unthinkable in a West European country" was the verdict on the two years of austerity from Andreas Treichl, the president of Austria's Erste Group, the largest foreign investor in the Romanian banking sector.
• 2011 budget deficit 4.35% of GDP
• public sector pay cut by 25%
• VAT raised from 19% to 24% (only surpassed by Iceland, Hungary and Norway)

We have been very much aware of the harsh conditions inflicted on the Greeks due to their own government's wheelings and dealings for decades, but very little, if anything, was reported by the international press up until the protests on those suffered by the Romanian people. In his 35-minute address to the nation, Mr Basescu acknowledged "some citizens have lost faith" but said the measures had pulled the country out of a recession, the Associated Press reported. "I know what needs to be done. We are where we should be. Romania has come out of a recession," he said.
To say that 'some citizens have lost faith' is something of an understatement. If the press and the social networks are to be believed, a very large majority of the country has lost faith - and that can be seen in the thousands who have taken to the streets across the entire country over the last 13 days. Teodor Baconschi, the Foreign Minister, was fired after he called protesters "inept and violent slum dwellers," and compared them to the miners who took to the streets of Bucharest in the 1990s. Clearly, the government believed this would mollify the protesters, but they remain wholely unconvinced.
In the nationally televised speech delivered live from the presidential palace on the occasion of Cristian Diaconescu's swearing-in as the new Foreign Minister, Basescu said his government would continue to create more jobs and fight against corruption and tax evasion. If Romania is really going to fight corruption, surely those in power now will have to step down and certain members of the opposition (the majority, in fact) would be unable to take power. You know the saying - 'the fish rots from the head...' Of course, corruption is so deep-seated one is helpless in knowing where to begin, but those in power today are as guilty of it as anyone. As are some in the opposition. There is the quandry. They are both as bad as each other. Today, the US Ambassador to Romania, Mark H. Gitenstein, criticised the country's high-level corruption - not particularly helpful, since it's nothing particularly new...
Those calling for Traian Basescu's resignation continue to state that ANYONE would be better than him. Those hoping he stays say that this is truly not the case. And so far, there is nobody else.
On 24 january, about 2,000 teachers, nurses, retired army officers and trade unionist rallied outside the government's headquarters: "I want to regain my dignity, I want this dictatorship formed by president and prime minister to fall," said Otilia Dobrica, a kindergarten teacher and part-time secretary who earns around $420 a month.
"We can't take any more," nurse Adriana Vintila explained. "Four million Romanians have left to work abroad because they can no longer survive in their home country. I don't want to leave; it's the government that should go."
About 5,000 people rallied in Iasi, calling for early elections, whilst in Bucharest's Piata Victoriei, protesters shouted "Freedom, Early Elections!" during yesterday's anti-government rally. “When I was the captain of a ship I never failed to bring my ship to port and I won’t fail to bring Romania to safe harbour,” Traian Basescu said during his address. “The belief that the president no longer represents the people is false. The president’s obligation is to represent them continuously, as the president has been elected through direct vote.”
Romania has been transformed since the overthrow of the Communist dictatorship in 1989 and the sometimes violent instability that followed. The nouveau-riche jet-set of young Romanians fill trendy nightclubs and plush restaurants that have sprouted up in Bucharest, and shiny new SUVs cruise the capital’s boulevards. There are many who do not wish to lose what Romania has today - better, richer in comparison to the way things were. They say that Traian Basescu is not a dictator and that Romania is no longer a dictatorship - they lived in and survived one. They know. Today, they have an opposition in parliament and they can protest in the streets. That is proof that no dictatorship exists today.
And yet, those in favour of the opposition, or at least, those calling for the resignation of Traian Basescu, Emil Boc and the fall of the present government say the benefits of progress have been uneven: life is harsh in rural areas and in the capital. Seventy hospitals nationwide have been closed; education has taken a nose-dive; if one wants a decently-paid job then one must go abroad; pensions are insultingly low; salaries have been cut. Among the EU nations, only neighbouring Bulgaria is poorer. Laws are passed without going through parliament to suit those in power, eg. Rosia Montana. That is NOT democracy.
Traian Basescu's speech, said Crin Antonescu, leader of PNL, was a sign that he was out of touch with reality and that he should resign, whilst Victor Ponta, the leader of PSD, told Agerpres that the speech said nothing at all and had no link whatsoever to do with what was happening in Romania.
Indeed, Romania finds itself today at a deeply messy and complex impasse. To choose between rotten apples and rotten pears is impossible and, until someone better comes along, until a new party surfaces that is not filled with officers and informants of the securitate and yesterday's nomenclatura, I remain fearful for the future of the country of my heart.
And Sarah also has a very readable piece today about Romania’s great dramatist – Caragiale – who was, as I mentioned on the 30 January posting, born 160 years ago -
By the late 1870s, Caragiale began writing the plays which cemented his reputation as an important playwright in Romania. In both plays and prose, he showed an incredible sense of the Romanian language, customs, and mannerisms, especially in the common person, and successfully used them for comedy and satire. Caragiale was highly observant of the human condition, particularly our tendency towards mistakes. He used what he saw and heard in his stories which generally focused on social conflicts and political corruption. The plays, especially, were full of fast-moving action and farce, employing solid characters with witty dialogue who usually failed in their goals. In the 1980s, Caragiale's plays were banned until the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed in 1989
Thank you, Sarah, for these excellent posts!